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When practicing postures, we stay fully present through mindfulness of the breath. When noticing the mind leaning away from our experience of an asana, we can remember to come back to the breath. In this way, the breath becomes the sutra—the thread—upon which we weave our practice. We see for ourselves how the posture and movement of the body conditions the breath. The qualities of the breath are conditioned by whether we are in a forward bend, a backbend, or a twist. When we maintain a posture, we will see a change in the breath. We can also see how the breath conditions the body, affecting both movement and posture. All this points to a core teaching of the Buddha: since all phenomena are conditioned, there is no real autonomous “thing” to speak of. We say “breath” or “posture” as if these were things separate from the flow of experience, but through this practice we see they are processes—caused and conditioned, selfless and constantly changing.

Bringing attention to the parts of the body, we become aware of any reaction we have. Which parts do we like? Which parts do we dislike? We may feel revulsion contemplating our earwax, bowels or lymph, and prefer to contemplate our hair or our eyes. Yet those eyes free from their sockets might provoke revulsion and fear; that hair clogged in our shower drain may seem disgusting. All reactivity is conditioned. We see that “beauty” and “disgust” are not inherent in the objects, but have interdependently arisen. Already, in the first foundation, we can get glimpses of the emptiness teaching of the Buddha.

Second Foundation

We deepen our intimacy with experience by bringing mindfulness to feelings—again, not as a disassociated observer, but from within the feelings themselves. Feelings here are not emotions but the “feeling tone” or “felt sense” of experience.

To see for yourself, take a moment to close your eyes and just sit, with your hands resting on your lap, palms down. Settle yourself into the experience, noting how it feels to sit here—physically and energetically. You may note such feelings as heavy, grounded, stable, or dull. Then, maintaining your attention, turn your palms upward and note if there’s a change in the feeling tone. You may find yourself feeling light, open, receptive, or vulnerable,”

Feelings are a primal experience that, according to the Buddha, precedes any reaction or emotion. The importance of bringing mindfulness to feelings or sensations cannot be overestimated. It is at the junction between feeling and reactivity that mindfulness provides the possibility of freely choosing how to respond to any given situation.

Hatha yoga practice can either help us grow in awareness and insight, or create dukkha (suffering), depending on whether mindfulness is present or not. For example, when practicing an asana you enjoy, experiencing the pleasure of a sensuous stretch, or the psychological pleasure of the “successful” performance of a challenging posture, if you are not mindful, you will get caught in craving and clinging, seeking to prolong or repeat the feeling as soon as it wanes (as it most assuredly will, all phenomena being impermanent). While it is indeed a pleasure to accomplish a challenging posture, without mindfulness, as the classic yoga text Gherandha-Samhita warns, asana practice becomes an obstacle to liberation when ego-gratification is clung to, and identification with ego and the body becomes more rigid and solid. We get caught in pride and our identity as someone who can do advanced postures. When conditions change (through illness, injury, or age) and we can no longer do what we used to, we can become discouraged and even suffer despair.

Practicing difficult postures, we may experience unpleasant feelings. Mindfulness shows us how quickly the mind seeks to push the unpleasant away, to eliminate it. Such aversion creates tension that is often more painful than the original sensation. The Buddha referred to this added anguish as the second arrow. The first arrow is the experience of discomfort or pain; the second arrow is the tension, anguish, and unease of our aversion.

Bringing awareness to neutral feelings cultivates greater clarity about our experience. In fact, most of our experience is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. So we spend much of our time seeking intensity of feeling or falling into boredom. Through greater awareness of the neutral aspect of experience, we remain present to experience and cultivate greater ease, enjoying the calm of neutrality.

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